2017 Election: The seats Labour must defend

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Politics

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Even as a Labour Party supporter, it’s hard to make an argument that Jeremy Corbyn is going to be the next prime minister. Even the most optimistic opinion polls since the election was called have Labour on roughly the same number of votes as in 2015 – you can make an argument for how much of an achievement/disappointment (delete as appropriate) that may be, but when the Conservative vote is going up, it isn’t going to get Corbyn into 10 Downing Street.

Instead, the most likely outcome is seats going the other way, but how many? There are currently 232 Labour MPs, 99 fewer than the Tories. But in the last two weeks, the polls have varied substantially, giving a huge range of potential outcomes.

At one end of the scale is the aforementioned possibility of Labour holding onto their votes from 2015, though even this would probably lead to the loss of further seats, as the Tory vote is expected to rise with the UKIP vote haemorrhaging, mostly in their direction.

At the other end is the potential for a Tory landslide. This itself could range from the sort of substantial Tory win that Margaret Thatcher led them to in 1983, after which they had a majority of 144, through to the cataclysmic possibility highlighted by the ComRes poll of 22nd April, which indicated the Tories were on course to pick up 50% of the vote, double that of Labour. This, coupled with polls predicting they were on course to pick up 40% of the vote in Wales (10% more than Labour) and finish a comfortable second in Scotland behind a declining SNP vote, suggested a bleak situation for Labour.

The problem with working out what a 50-25 vote would look like is that it’s quite hard to predict exactly where the votes would come from. Uniform national swing only works up to a point. If we are to assume that the rise in the Tory vote is coming from UKIP votes – the Welsh YouGov poll of 24th April suggested over two-thirds of 2015 UKIP voters were now going to vote Conservative – then this would obviously indicate a lower Labour-Tory swing in areas with a lower UKIP vote in 2015 such as parts of London, but conversely would indicate a much higher swing in areas with a very high UKIP vote. This of course includes many of Labour’s seats in their heartlands, such as the North East, Yorkshire and South Wales.

I’ve already discussed the situation in Wales and the potential for this to be particularly damaging for Labour – it’s possible, through the churn of votes over the last seven years, that former diehard Labour voters in working class areas are now preparing to vote Tory after a transition via voting UKIP in 2015, in which case the headline prediction of ten Tory gains in Wales might actually be understating the threat they pose to Labour seats. Theorising that the way to work out which seats may be to look at the combined Tory-UKIP vote from 2015, I decided to look beyond Wales and see how many Labour seats nationally would be under threat.

As I was working this out, rumours started swirling that UKIP were going to withdraw from many seats to help the Tories, with the party possibly running in as few as 100 seats (something that was quickly denied by leader Paul Nuttall). This provides an interesting insight into what might happen if they did withdraw from key seats en masse.

I decided to use the most extreme negative polls for Labour as my starting point – the 22 April ComRes poll for Britain (50% Tory, 25% Labour), the 23 April Panelbase poll for Scotland (44% SNP, 33% Tory, 13% Labour) and the 24 April YouGov poll for Wales (40% Tory, 30% Labour). Given that in recent elections the Tory vote has been underestimated by the polls, and that uniform swing won’t necessarily happen anyway (with extremes both above and below that level of swing), it provides a basis for showing which seats are potentially under threat, and the scale of the nightmare scenario Labour could be facing if things go catastrophically wrong.

To work out which seats are most likely to change hands, I calculated the uniform swing. After this, I produced a second list of seats where the projected vote for the incumbent (Labour/SNP/Plaid) is lower than the projected Tory vote combined with the projected UKIP vote – what I call the “Brexit majority” vote. I then produced a third list where the projected vote for the incumbent is higher than the “Brexit majority” but by less than 3%, the generally-accepted margin for error. Of course it’s incredibly likely that all or even most of those seats could turn blue, but it’s a window into some possibilities not yet on the radar of political experts.

Uniform swing
The number of seats that would likely turn blue according to the uniform swing alone is substantial. The Tories hitting the 50% mark, like the SNP in Scotland in 2015, would probably wipe Labour out of large parts of the country, as well as denting the SNP’s hold on Scotland and costing the Lib Dems some seats too. If this is representative, this would be a win for the Tories way beyond 1983 – this would be a landslide not seen with universal suffrage. Here is the full list:

Scotland (11)
Aberdeen South – SNP
Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk – SNP
Dumfries & Galloway – SNP
East Lothian – SNP
East Renfrewshire – SNP
Edinburgh South – Labour
Edinburgh South West – SNP
Moray – SNP
Perth & North Perthshire – SNP
Stirling – SNP
West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine – SNP

Wales (10)
Alyn & Deeside – Labour
Bridgend – Labour
Cardiff South & Penarth – Labour
Cardiff West – Labour
Clwyd South – Labour
Delyn – Labour
Newport East – Labour
Newport West – Labour
Wrexham – Labour
Ynys Mon – Labour

North East (6)
Bishop Auckland – Labour
Darlington – Labour
Hartlepool – Labour
Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East – Labour
Sedgefield – Labour
Tynemouth – Labour

North West (18)
Barrow & Furness – Labour
Blackpool South – Labour
Bolton North East – Labour
Bury South – Labour
Chorley – Labour
City of Chester – Labour
Copeland – Labour
Ellesmere Port & Neston – Labour
Hyndburn – Labour
Lancaster & Fleetwood – Labour
Oldham East & Saddleworth – Labour
Southport – Lib Dem
Stalybridge & Hyde – Labour
West Lancashire – Labour
Wirral South – Labour
Wirral West – Labour
Workington – Labour
Worsley & Eccles South – Labour

Yorkshire (10)
Batley & Spen – Labour
Bradford South – Labour
Dewsbury – Labour
Great Grimsby – Labour
Halifax – Labour
Leeds North East – Labour
Penistone & Stocksbridge – Labour
Scunthorpe – Labour
Wakefield – Labour
York Central – Labour

East (4)
Clacton – UKIP
Luton South – Labour
North Norfolk – Norman Lamb
Norwich South – Labour

East Midlands (5)
Bassetlaw – Labour
Gedling – Labour
Mansfield – Labour
North East Derbyshire – Labour
Nottingham South – Labour

West Midlands (14)
Birmingham Edgbaston – Labour
Birmingham Erdington – Labour
Birmingham Northfield – Labour
Coventry North West – Labour
Coventry South – Labour
Dudley North – Labour
Newcastle-under-Lyme – Labour
Stoke-on-Trent Central – Labour
Stoke-on-Trent North – Labour
Stoke-on-Trent South – Labour
Walsall North – Labour
Walsall South – Labour
Wolverhampton North East – Labour
Wolverhampton South West – Labour

London (12)
Brentford & Isleworth – Labour
Carshalton & Wallington – Lib Dem
Dagenham & Rainham – Labour
Ealing Central & Acton – Labour
Eltham – Labour
Enfield North – Labour
Hammersmith – Labour
Hampstead & Kilburn – Labour
Harrow West – Labour
Ilford North – Labour
Tooting – Labour
Westminster North – Labour

South East (3)
Hove – Labour
Slough – Labour
Southampton Test – Labour

South West (3)
Bristol East – Labour
Bristol South – Labour
Exeter – Labour

Total – 96 Conservative gains; 83 Labour losses; 9 SNP losses; 3 Lib Dem losses; 1 UKIP loss

Beyond just the sheer numbers, there would be some notable casualties here, particularly for Labour. MPs in the firing line range from Shadow Cabinet ministers – Debbie Abrahams (Work and Pensions), Valerie Vaz (House of Commons), Sue Hayman (Environment) – to some of the great hopes of the left, including Clive Lewis and Cat Smith. Several outspoken critics of the leadership, including John Woodcock, John Mann, Wes Streeting, Stephen Doughty and Ian Austin, would also be caught up, along with Blue Labour figurehead Jon Cruddas, and veterans of the party like Geoffrey Robinson, David Winnick, Sir Alan Meale and Paul Flynn.

But more than this, it’s a substantial change to the political geography of Britain. As well as wiping the last vestiges of Labour from the South West and East Anglia, the Tories would also make serious inroads in the North West and West Midlands, as well as those substantial gains in Scotland and Wales. There are also symbolic gains, like Tony Blair’s former seat Sedgefield, and seats like Newport East, Coventry North West and Mansfield that they have never held in their current form. They would also dominate places like Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and Walsall.

Alongside this, the Lib Dems would also suffer the blow of losing three of the eight MPs they kept in 2015, including 2015 leadership contender Norman Lamb. UKIP would lose their only seat, while the SNP would lose nine MPs including their deputy leader Angus Robertson.

All in all, if every single one of these seats went the Tories’ way, they would have a majority of 204 – much bigger even than the majority Labour had in 1997. But it could yet be worse for the other parties.

The “Brexit majority”
On top of those 96 potential gains, the Tories could be looking at a further stack of seats. This is where high UKIP votes come in – although it cannot be assumed that every UKIP voter would be willing to vote Conservative, this is a list of seats where the right wing vote has a potential majority, and the fluidity of that vote could prove decisive, especially if UKIP choose not to run in many of these seats. While this isn’t necessarily a hard and fast prediction by any means, it’s a demonstration of where the threat to Labour and the SNP lies. This is where things could get really ugly for Labour in particular.

Scotland (3)
Angus – SNP
Edinburgh North & Leith – SNP
Ochil & South Perthshire – SNP

Wales (5)
Caerphilly – Labour
Llanelli – Labour
Pontypridd – Labour
Swansea West – Labour
Torfaen – Labour

North East (8)
Blaydon – Labour
Blyth Valley – Labour
Newcastle upon Tyne North – Labour
North West Durham – Labour
Redcar – Labour
Stockton North – Labour
Sunderland Central – Labour
Wansbeck – Labour

North West (12)
Ashton-under-Lyne – Labour
Bolton South East – Labour
Burnley – Labour
Denton & Reddish – Labour
Heywood & Middleton – Labour
Leigh – Labour
Makerfield – Labour
Rochdale – Labour
Salford & Eccles – Labour
Warrington North – Labour
Wigan – Labour
Wythenshawe & Sale East – Labour

Yorkshire (9)
Don Valley – Labour
Doncaster Central – Labour
Doncaster North – Labour
Hemsworth – Labour
Huddersfield – Labour
Hull West & Hessle – Labour
Leeds West – Labour
Rother Valley – Labour
Rotherham – Labour

East (1)
Luton North – Labour

East Midlands (4)
Ashfield – Labour
Bolsover – Labour
Derby South – Labour
Leicester West – Labour

West Midlands (5)
Birmingham Selly Oak – Labour
Birmingham Yardley – Labour
West Bromwich East – Labour
West Bromwich West – Labour
Wolverhampton South East – Labour

London (2)
Erith & Thamesmead – Labour
Feltham & Heston – Labour

Total – 49 Conservative gains; 46 Labour losses; 3 SNP losses

To summarise, here are some of the figures Labour could lose if there is a destruction to this scale – Ed Miliband, Tom Watson, Margaret Beckett, Dennis Skinner, Owen Smith, Caroline Flint, Lisa Nandy, Liz Kendall, Jess Phillips, Rosie Winterton, Rachel Reeves, Gloria de Piero, Kelvin Hopkins, Seema Malhotra, Nia Griffith and Ronnie Campbell.

And if you’re on the left and you’re looking at that list thinking “well, it’s not so bad – most of those don’t like Corbyn anyway” – also be aware that this list includes the seats Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jon Trickett, three key Corbyn allies. Coupled with the loss of Cat Smith and several other members of the Shadow Cabinet across the two lists, it would surely destroy any chance of getting a left-wing candidate onto the ballot paper for another leadership election, with or without the McDonnell amendment.

Beyond this, the possibility of more significant Tory gains in the North West, the North East and Yorkshire mean the map of English constituencies is almost entirely blue, with the Tories dominating every region. With Tory MPs for places like Sunderland, West Bromwich, Pontypridd, Wigan and Rotherham, it would be a radical departure from anything we’ve ever seen before in British politics. 129 Labour MPs would be gone, over half of the 232 elected in 2015.

A word of caution, though – beyond the sheer unlikelihood, it’s worth bearing in mind that combining the Tory and UKIP votes becomes a potential issue when UKIP start from a lot higher number of votes than the Tories. Obviously a uniform UKIP -> Tory swing is possible, which would lead to a higher number of votes changing in seats with a higher UKIP vote, but at the same time, voters in seats where UKIP finished above the Tories last time might be more inclined to stick with UKIP.

An example of where it becomes particularly tricky is Rotherham. Yes, the projected combined total edges out Labour – but in 2015, the UKIP vote here was 30.2% to the Tories’ 12.3%. The result is predicting a Tory win here would mean a swing of over 20%, whereas UKIP would only require an 11% swing to win. The polls suggest it’s plausible for the Tories to win but the reality is it would be very difficult barring a seismic shift. That being said, the majority of seats above have the Tories projected comfortably 2nd anyway.

The 3% margin of error
As if that wasn’t enough, a further 20 seats lie within the pollsters’ margin of error:

Edinburgh West – SNP
North East Fife – SNP
Carmarthen East & Dinefwr – Plaid Cymru
Islwyn – Labour
Neath – Labour
City of Durham – Labour
South Shields – Labour
Blackburn – Labour
Sefton Central – Labour
Stockport – Labour
Stretford & Urmston – Labour
Hull East – Labour
Leeds East – Labour
Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford – Labour
Sheffield Heeley – Labour
Sheffield South East – Labour
Chesterfield – Labour
Coventry North East – Labour
Brent North – Labour
Bristol West – Labour

Total – 20 Conservative gains; 17 Labour losses; 2 SNP losses; 1 Plaid loss

More potential destruction here for Labour, with leadership hopeful Yvette Cooper, Corbyn ally Richard Burgon, and popular soft left figure Louise Haigh all in the firing line. There are also a notable number of seats held here by former Labour giants including Neil Kinnock (Islwyn), John Prescott (Hull East), Jack Straw (Blackburn), Tony Benn (Chesterfield), David Milliband (South Shields) and Peter Hain (Neath) – that’s the scale of the mess we’re talking about. It would also give the Tories complete dominance in Coventry and Bristol, as well as large parts of Leeds, Hull and Edinburgh. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of these seats would require a gargantuan swing for the Tories to win, including overtaking UKIP in a few of them – though after the SNP surge in 2015, anything’s possible.

Labpocalypse Now?

The final total is of 165 Tory potential gains, 145 being from Labour. It would give the Tories a huge 496 seats, with a majority of 342 – neatly double that of Labour in 1997. Labour would be reduced to just 85, barely double the SNP total of 41 – this includes two further Lib Dem gains from Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark (London) and Cambridge (East), which would take their total to 7.

It seems inconceivable, and it probably is – this is the political equivalent of Threads, a warning of the ultimate worst case scenario, where any Labour MPs in a 5-mile radius would be turned into dust, and the rest would be left with severe burns and radiation poisoning.

But though I dismiss it is seemingly implausible, the surface figures we see today hide the fact that a right-wing majority has already amassed or is amassing in many of these seats, as well as in the country as a whole. It’s just that until now people have been talking about UKIP sneaking up on Labour in their heartlands – the suggestion of the polls is that it could actually be the Tories after all. The potential implications for British politics are profound – even if these figures are out, it suggests that Labour cannot take their heartlands for granted, because they are slowly and steadily moving rightwards.

It is these seats, rather than the traditional middle class swing seats, that may prove to be most crucial this year. The battle for Corbyn isn’t to win the election – it’s to save the Labour Party from electoral oblivion.

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